Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kosovar Extremists Targeted

International officials pledge to crack down hard on Kosovo Albanian criminals
By IWPR staff

The UN's arrest of three Kosovar Albanians suspected of war crimes earlier this week suggests it is now serious about cracking down on criminal elements hampering the region's democratic development and international image.


The detention of Letif Gashi, Naim Kadriu, and Nazif Mehmeti follows two years of criticism of the international peacekeeping force for failing to stem a crime wave which began during the Kosovo war.


NATO forces, KFOR, and the UN mission, UNMIK, have been reluctant to take action against individuals suspected of war crimes or murdering Kosovar civilians for fear of triggering a violent backlash from militants and groups associated with these crimes.


Every international official in Kosovo will say, in confidence, that most offences can be linked to the hard line members of the Kosovo Protection Corps, KPC, and the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK. Both were set up by the ex-Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, commander Hashim Thaci in 1999.


The three suspects apprehended on January 28 were former members of the KPC, a civilian protection force born out of the former KLA, and are active members of the PDK and the National Intelligence Service, a shadowy institution also set up by Thaci in 1999.


The Pristina-based news agency Kosovalive reported that Kadriu was in fact PDK party secretary in the town of Podujevo and that his headquarters had been, "searched, dismantled and shut down by UNMIK police and KFOR".


A UN statement announcing the arrests, however, made it clear that the organizations to which the suspects belonged were not being targeted - a move interpreted as an attempt to avert a backlash from the KPC, which has hampered international efforts at making arrests in the past.


The internationals' apparent fears were vindicated when around 500 KPC members and KLA war veterans staged a protest against the arrests in central Pristina on January 30. A similar protest was organized in Podujevo. "No KLA member has committed any crime against any other nation or against their own nation," said one protester at the Pristina demo.


The PDK has asked the Kosovo assembly to look into the affair, condemning the move as an insult to KLA members. But the international community is standing firm, with UNMIK police commissioner Christopher Albiston declaring that a major crackdown on crime in the protectorate was planned for this year. "All preparations have been made to arrest the main criminals in Kosovo this year," he said.


Organised crime and political extremism have seriously undermined UNMIK's efforts at building institutions and a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo.


Since June 1999, when the 40,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping troops entered Kosovo, a series of ethnically motivated crimes against the beleaguered Serb minority have triggered widespread international condemnation. Crimes committed by Kosovar Albanians against their own people have largely been ignored. Western officials in the region have been equally bad at investigating attacks against both communities.


It is believed that members of Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, have been harassed and intimidated by elements within the KPC, who believe that the presidential candidate pursues too soft a line on the issue of Kosovo's independence.


Many ordinary Kosovans are concerned by the militancy of PDK members -some of whom are alleged to control much of the protectorate's energy and petrol supplies as well as a sizeable amount of other assets seized after the 1999 war.


As a result of these fears, the electorate opted for Rugova's more moderate LDK in the October 2000 local elections.


Shortly after that, the LDK's campaign chief and Rugova's closest associate, Xhemail Mustafa, was assassinated in front of his apartment.


A few months later, Ismet Rraci, LDK branch president in the town of Klina, was murdered on his way to work. It was the second such tragedy for the community in western Kosovo - his predecessor's charred body had been found dumped by kidnappers last July.


Yet another colleague of Rugova's was assassinated in an ambush near Drenica in November, during the parliamentary election campaign. Besim Dajaku was shot along with Bekim Kastrati, a journalist with the pro-LDK Bota Sot newspaper, on their way to a meeting with high-ranking KPC official Sulejman Selimi. Another LDK politician, Smajl Hajdaraj, was murdered on January 18.


These and other attempts on the lives of LDK officials remain unsolved although there's little doubt that the actions are politically motivated.


Under pressure to crackdown on the militants, UNMIK set up an organised crime intelligence unit last year with the specific task of gathering information on mob crime and terrorist activities.


As a result, several KPC officers were arrested on suspicion of involvement in criminal activities, including murders that had shaken Kosovo over the last three years.


Sali Veseli, a prominent KPC chief, and his associate Ruzhdi Saramati, were picked up last May, accused of planning and carrying out the murder of Ekrem Rexha, aka Commander Drini, a former KLA leader from the southern town of Prizren.


The motive behind the killing seemed be that Rexha was cooperating closely with an international police investigation into illegal construction deals in Prizren.


Veseli is still in detention awaiting trial while his comrade is serving a five-year sentence for unrelated offences. A source in the Prizren district court said that the latter case was collapsing as witnesses felt their safety was being compromised.


Gani Ymeri, a KPC commander in the town of Vucitrn, was arrested last December on suspicion of involvement in crimes against Serbs.


Alush Shala, a high-ranking commander of KPC's own internal security in Prizren, was arrested by KFOR on January 20, in connection with criminal activities. Charges have yet to be announced.


During his arrest, as has happened before in such cases, a confrontation broke out between UNMIK police and dozens of KPC members.


Critics of the international community acknowledge that it has begun to make some progress in bringing Kosovo extremists to justice, but say much more needs to be done, as most of the serious crimes committed in the region over the last few years remain unsolved.